Unlocking innovation

SHARE   |   Sunday, 21 December 2014   |   By Kabelo Adamson
Founding CEO of BITRI Torto Founding CEO of BITRI Torto

Researching new innovations has become the country’s new hope for economic diversification and a highly educated chemist – Nelson Torto – is the face of this new charge. KABELO ADAMSON reports

Botswana Institute of Technology, Research and Innovation (BITRI) has its work cut out for it – to pursue research into established ways and resources and extract new value from such through technology driven innovations.
BITRI stands as the bridge to close the gap that has been missing for some time; this is because successful economies worldwide are technology and innovation-based.
Established in 2012 by the government, BITRI started operations in 2013 as a result of a merger between Botswana Technology Centre (BOTEC) and Rural Industries Promotion Company (RIPCO).
Earlier this week, Professor Nelson Torto, the founding CEO of the research centre fielded questions from The Patriot on Sunday giving an insight about what BITRI is about and its future prospects.
“We are here to identify, adopt or develop technologies that are of relevance in Botswana so that we can actually give opportunities that will allow for development, employment and diversification of the economy where possible,” Torto explains.
Being the founding CEO of BITRI, Torto’s job will be to deliver to the stakeholders what the organisation has been tasked with as well as to harness the indigenous knowledge by bringing their knowledge under research.
Torto as the maiden executive leader arrived at BITRI alive to what lies ahead as research in this country has not been done at the highest level and this is the opportunity to grow the sector.
“My goal is to make everyone to realise that technology is a vital component that should contribute to the national economy,” Torto explains, adding that recruiting the right people will be one of the strategies to achieve just that.
He believes he will achieve his goals provided he receives as much support from all the stakeholders including the government. To him, Botswana has smart people who are capable of undertaking world class research and turn it into well developed products.
Currently housed at Maranyane House, BITRI is busy renovating the building structures that were inherited from BOTEC a few years ago and want to turn the facilities into a world standard research centre.
“Unfortunately the building was an office space that needed to be transformed into a lab and fitted with the required appliances of such building, including connecting water, gas and other instruments,” Torto said.
There are many issues that BITRI has targeted to research on and ultimately come up with technological solutions to through innovation. These are categorised into two areas. There is the technology field that covers ICT, energy and the other focus will be on the natural resources that includes water, and other natural resources such as coal.
One of the natural resources that BITRI seeks to utilise is coal.  This is because of the mineral’s abundance in the country currently standing at about 200 billion tonnes of reserves.
“Our mandate requires us to find ways on how to use natural resources in Botswana. We feel coal has an important role in the diversification drive,” Torto points out, further explaining that they will explore the mineral through nanotechnology.
Currently BITRI is in discussion with Debswana Diamond Company – owners of Morupule Coal mine – to see how best the two can work together with a view of establishing a long-term relationship to develop coal in Botswana.
There are various projects that the research centre has earmarked for development. This includes purification of water and air, which will be done once necessary facilities are secured.  
“We want to provide portable water for drinking as well as filtration of air through a method of nanotechnology which is relevant in the mining industry,” Torto explains.
Other immediate targets for BITRI is producing solar powered streets lights that would be rolled in the streets of Gaborone as well other solutions that will address traffic matters in in the city through innovative ways.
As a relatively new research center, BITRI has partnered with well-established research institutions worldwide to bring various ideas under research with the aim of developing them further.
Even though Torto would not reveal some of the international partners of BITRI, he says, they are top-notch research entities, saying South Africa’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is one of them.
Torto, a former Method Development Chemist at BCL Mine, says their role is to partner with people that can help to develop the industry, including using the indigenous people to harness their knowledge and bring their thinking under research for development.
“We have done value gap analysis and where possible we will bring some of those thinking on board, these include painting and basket weaving,” Torto says.
He believes that the strength of any nation is to work on what is known as competitive advantage. 
Explaining the kind of relationship they have with Botswana Innovation Hub, Toto says at BITRI they are the foot soldiers that are involved mainly in doing the work from the research stage all the way to implementation.
At the innovation hub, he says, they are the facilitators of the research and in most cases when they want to work on some projects they use BITRI facilities to carry out the research.
Since research and innovation has not been done at the highest level in the country, Torto says they will introduce it to students at basic education level as well as to the general public through various ways.
“We have seminar series where we educate different stakeholders about the organisation. We are also looking at having BITRI Open Day where school going children can come and learn,” he says.
BITRI is already celebrating latest innovations. The research centre has presented two products which are the result of high level of research undertaken by the local researchers in collaboration with their international counterparts.
The two are a the solar powered street light known as Seding and the mobile phone application of the traditional game –Morabaraba – which were unveiled recently.
BITRI takes the role of local communities in their work seriously; and hence are in constant engagement with them to understand more what they want.
“We do what is called core creation where we approach the person and understand their challenge and propose a product for them, we don’t want a situation where we force products into the people without their consent,” Torto says, adding that this simply defines their philosophy of “from you, to us, for you”.
This means that any product developed for the community will be tailor-made for their needs not what BITRI thinks could be the solution.
One of the opportunities that Torto says they would like to tap in is the ICT sector that has been identified as one of the prospects for development in Africa as a continent.
BITRI would seek to mentor and grow graduates in this field to further use their skills to develop the sector. This is to be done in collaboration with the ministry of Youth, Sport and culture where about 60 students will be taken on board for mentorship about ICT development.
The institution is also willing to collaborate with organisations with similar mandates as theirs. Established with the simple mandate of undertaking research, Torto believes BITRI as an institution given that responsibility, it should be given the priority and support it deserves.
He says there should be rationalisation of researchers in Botswana and as the only research centre in Botswana he says it should be given the right personnel to spearhead the research rather than competing with other institutions such as the University of Botswana and BIUST for staff.
“A researcher for instance at UB spends one third of their time doing research whereas here at BITRI a researcher spends 12 months doing research which is a big difference,” he says, insisting that even remuneration of BITRI staff should reflect this.
BITRI as a new organisation has got its own challenges that include funding. Torto says as they are still finding their feet they deserve more financial support.
He says the budget curbing will affect the institution in its quest to diversify the economy through innovation. However, they are identifying alternative ways of fund raising such as undertaking water filtration for Water Utilities Corporation. BITRI has 89 staff members.

Who is Nelson Torto?

Professor Torto - a former chemistry lecture at UB - is an experienced man having worked as a Method Development Chemist at BCL Mine where he started his career prior to joining UB as Staff Development fellow (SDF).
While still at UB, Torto pursued masters’ degree and later PHD and was promoted to the position of a senior lecturer and later associate professor. He left UB in 2008 and joined Rhodes University in South Africa as a full professor and in 2010 became the first black to become head of chemistry at Rhodes. Torto left Rhodes University in 2012 to take over as BITRI chief executive.
Though he has won many awards in his career life, he singles out the greatest being the one given to him by the American Chemical Society. He also credits himself with having produced 19 PhD holders, half of them being Batswana who head various institutions and centres here and abroad.
Torto is not the glory type of person who always wants to be credited with the good work but says there are many heroes who deserve to be recognised.  He believes the hero is never in the house.
His inspiration comes from selfless people who always prefer to serve other people and not their own interests.
An accredited coach and facilitator of Time to Think, Torto is an avid reader, who often taps his feet to the melodious sound of jazz.  He describes himself as an outdoor person who enjoys seafood and visits the gym every morning at five.

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